Does your story have a disconnect?

Do all the pieces of your story hang together? Or are there missing links in the plot? A character who suddenly appears (or disappears), an unexplained leap in time, perhaps a shift in location.

We spent a glorious few days at the seaside recently on holiday with friends. We all pitched up in the same area so we could meet up but stayed in different places. One family was staying in a lovely house with this wallpaper in the kitchen. I was fascinated by it because the story it was telling was so jumbled.

My friends' holiday cottage British wallpaper

At first, it comes across as a simple tale of English heritage:

“United Kingdom”

“Cities of England”

“Kings & Queens”

“Afternoon tea”

“Scones with Jam & cream”

But then you see:

“Glasgow” (that’s not in England)

“Circus Piccadilly” (huh? Piccadilly Circus, surely)

“Pea and ham” (but no soup)

“Bath time” (Bath yes, that would fit the narrative of cities of England but bath time?) Word association perhaps? 

And then there are the odd cultural references thrown in which don’t gel together.

Afternoon tea, cucumber sandwiches and scones with jam and cream go together beautifully. Fish and chips, oh yes! But cheese on toast? I suppose it’s a classic but Welsh Rarebit would have been tastier in this story of regional delights. 

Scones with jam and cream
Scones with jam and cream and a cup of tea. A classic in Devon and Cornwall (and National Trust properties nationwide)

Then alongside Windsor Castle it shouts “up the apples and pears!” We’ve shifted to the east end of London with Cockney rhyming slang (it means go upstairs).

In a way it fits this tale of England but not quite.  It feels out of context. Partly because to the uninitiated it requires explanation, partly because it’s just thrown in there. How does going up stairs fit with cities of England? 

Then we’re given pounds, shillings and pence. We haven’t used these since the 1970s! England, old England.

Filling in the gaps (because this wallpaper definitely had too much white space) is 5d. Why five? Thruppence or sixpence would at least be nostalgic for some or intriguing for those of us born after decimalisation but who occasionally come across one of these coins in a drawer. (My 3-year-old produced a thruppeny bit from a toy money box with a collection of copper coins at his grandparents’ house yesterday). But 5 pence? 

Cromer pier
Cromer pier

The story told on this wall has a disconnect. It does not fit together. You might be reading this and thinking: but Rachel, it’s wallpaper. 

Well yes, it is. But it tells a story because it layers a number of cultural images to form a mental narrative.  Here’s where the story goes wrong:

  • It’s unclear what the story is about. Is it cities of England? Is it about regional food? Is it about places and dishes you should experience while you are visiting?
  • It is trying to tell too broad a story. England’s cultural history can fill several volumes. Being too broad can leave your reader feeling frustrated. It’s like hitting a click bait headline and being left none the wiser than when you started reading or watching.
  • Its main character is not clearly defined. Is it England or Britain? Upper class or working class? Modern or Victorian?
  • The reader has to think too much. Circus Piccadilly makes no sense. Bath time fits together but not in this context and leaves you wondering if they meant to write Bath. Cheese and toast isn’t something to write home about. 
  • New plot lines are thrown together. We leap from city to dish to random phrase. All of them conjure images associated with England (apart from Glasgow) but they’re a confusing collection. There’s no clear thread between them.
  • Some things are missing. It mentions afternoon tea but what about a cup of tea? Where is roast beef and Yorkshire pudding? Pie and mash?
  • It’s not clear why the characters are there. Piccadilly Circus has wandered onto a stage set for cities. The London Underground would have jarred less.
  • It makes assumptions about the reader’s knowledge. They need to know pea and ham goes with soup, apples and pears is slang, and what old money meant. 
  • And in between it randomly shouts out, “if you’re happy and you know it!”

When you’re writing a story be clear about who the main characters are and what you want your audience to take away from it. When you move through your story, make sure you’re not expecting the audience to fill in gaps. Pay attention to language. You can’t cater for everyone but will the person you really want to read it understand?

Your story should be engaging, not baffling. If your audience is confused, they will stop paying attention. 

Rachel Extance (photo by Jemima Willcox)

Rachel Extance helps business tell their stories so they can reach a wider audience for their work and ideas. A professional journalist, she knows how to write stories people find relevant and engaging. If you would like help to get your message across, need someone who can write articles for you regularly, or you would like actionable ideas for how to tell more people about what you do, get in touch.

4 thoughts on “Does your story have a disconnect?”

  1. Hey Rachel, great post. I appreciate the blend of clarity, humor, structure, and advice. I got a lot out of this! The detail in your example really hit the point home. Then you repeat the lesson with very clear points. Thank you!

    That’s so funny that ugly wallpaper inspired a teaching about how to connect points in a story. Just goes to show that inspiration can strike anywhere.

  2. Hi Rachel, I really enjoyed this piece. I’m also pleased to know that I’m not the only one to apply my professional thinking to random objects that I interact with! Not only do you make some great points referencing your thoughts about the wallpaper but you also follow that up with helping us to see how to make our own stories better.

    I’d love you to go deeper (maybe in a future post) about the concept of white space as you talk about it here. From a design perspective, this wallpaper doesn’t use white space. From a design perspective, white space is seen as a good thing. I’d love to hear the paradox of how to best use white space (or not) in our stories.

  3. Hey,
    There are a lot of moving parts in this story and you put hold them all together . The family vacation, the sights , and the sound . The story of the wallpaper comes as a twist I wasn’t expecting, It works on how you use that to spin a tale about effective story telling .

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